VANHAL: Symphonies, Vol. 2 (Andrew Watkinson/ City of London Sinfonia) (Naxos: 8.554138)
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Johann BaptistVaňhal (1739-1813)
Symphonies, Vol. 2
Johann Baptist Vaňhal was one of the mostpopular Viennese composers during his lifetime. History however, has beenunkind to his reputation, the result of irresponsible statements that were madeby imaginative authors who were not acquainted with him or his circumstances.
The general impression is that he was melancholy and depressed when, in truth,he appears to have been basically happy and personable. Wild claims have alsobeen made that early in his career he was so overcome by madness caused byreligious fervour that he burned some of his music. After that, the story goes,the quality of compositions deteriorated so much that he never realised thepromise of his early works. The lie to this assertion is given by the splendidsymphonies included here, which range from the Symphony in B fiat major
(Bryan Bb3), which probably dates from the period 1762-64, through to theSymphony in G major (Bryan G11), one of a number of brilliantsymphonies Vaňhal composed in themid-1770s. His vitality and inventiveness are evident in all of them.
One part of Vaňhal's reputation is,however, true. He was the first major composer of the time who was strongenough to renounce the offer of a 'good' - and terribly-demanding position -and to live comfortably until he died in Vienna at the age of 74. His successwas possible because of his other personal characteristics. He was humble anddeeply religious - not ambitious for fame, high position, or fortune. He wasalso shrewd, hard-working and sensitive to changing economic and socialconditions. As a result he decided to cease composing symphonies and chambermusic when the market in Vienna was drying up about the year 1780, and began toexplore other possibilities. The results were spectacular. He composed, forexample, more than 247 works (mostly unpublished), large and small, for the church. He alsowrote a huge number of pieces all of which centred around the keyboard. Hiscompositions included serious works, such as the keyboard Capriccios, andsongs and cantatas for voice with keyboard accompaniment. He also publishedmany pieces for instruction and entertainment which became very popularincluding imaginative pieces with descriptive titles such as The Battle ofTrafalgar. In all he produced more than 1300 compositions in a wide varietyof genres. To the present, only the symphonies and string quartets have beensufficiently studied to ascertain his complete contribution.
The present three symphonies provide a good introduction to Vaňhal's symphonic style and illustrate why he wasconsidered such an important exponent of the genre.
One of Vaňhal' s early symphonies, Symphonyin B flat major (Bryan Bb3) was probably composed between1762 and 1764. It was well known in its time; there are five contemporarycatalogue references to the work; a dozen manuscript copies are preserved in anequal number of archives; and four prints of it were issued by publishers,including Bremner, whose Periodical Overture No. 47 was published inLondon in 1775. This work demonstrates a number of facets of Vaňhal's musically imaginative and innovative nature,not least among them his highly developed sense of orchestral colour - hefeatures his little wind choir of two oboes and two horns at times almost inthe manner of a concertino group - and a predilection for unusual phraselengths which invests the music with such rhythmic and structural interest. Thelovely second movement Andante arioso, scored for strings alone, alsomakes wonderful use of this technique: its opening nine-bar phrase, answered bya five-bar phrase, imparts a slightly unsettling quality to the music for allits grace and transparency. With the Menuetto the wind instrumentsreturn and Vaňhal makes striking use ofhis wind quartet in Menuetto II which, coincidentally, shares a numberof important thematic links with Menuetto I. The wind quartet is treatedin a concertino fashion in the Finale, just as it was in the firstmovement, alternating piano with the tutti forte strings within the overallsonata scheme. And again, as they were in the first movement, the motifs fromwhich the movement springs are contained within the opening theme Vaňhal is, at this stage, experimenting with the contentof his symphonic movements but his basic principles of construction areestablished.
Vaňhal was not only anexcellent and imaginative composer; he was also innovative and alert to theopportunities of the moment. One of the most outstanding examples of hismusical astuteness in music concerns his use of multiple horns. The five hornparts in the Symphony in D minor (Bryan d2) are more thanhave been found to date in any other eighteenth-century symphony. The work wasdoubtless written for one of only a few orchestras, e.g., those of PrinceEsterhazy or the Prince of Thurn und Taxis, in whose collections copies of itare still found.
Six contemporary catalogues or references to the symphony are known andfour manuscript copies of the work are preserved. All the evidence points to1773-74 as the date or its composition. Vaňhal obviously considered it to be an important commission and planned towrite a symphony that would accommodate the five hornists as well as anexcellent oboist. At this stage in his career he was either ambivalent aboutcomposing Menuetto and Trio movements or the commissioner was notinterested to have one. At any rate it is a three-movement work that isaesthetically satisfactory and complete.
The first and last movements are clearly meant to feature the fivehorns. Together with the two oboes, they fill in the harmony of the wind choir,and indeed, carefully complement the entire orchestra. The result is a uniquelyrich orchestral timbre, especially in the tonic-key portions of the first andlast movements where full harmony is achieved. It was undoubtedly one of themain reasons why the symphony was chosen for performance in RegensburgCathedral on Good Friday in 1781.
In addition to the striking use of the horns and the beautiful solo foroboe, the highly-integrated symphonic construction of the first movement isremarkable. The entire movement is based upon three motifs heard in the openingthematic statement. The movement is harmonically very rich, not only inlocalised harmony but also in terms of tonal architecture; the recapitulationcontains a monumental deflection from D minor to C minor via the unexpected keyof B flat major. It constitutes a real interruption of the normal tonal schemeof sonata form and gives the effect of a false recapitulation or even of asecond development.
The second movement, Cantabile, is a full-scale concerto movementfor oboe, complete with orchestral ritornelli. Vaňhal doubtless knew the capabilities of the player for whom he composed thework; it does not demand a virtuoso performer but this attractive and lyricalmovement provides opportunities for the player to ornament and includes theexpected fermata for a cadenza and a written-out solo retransition to therecapitulation.
The Finale differs in style from the first movement but it toohas interesting harmonic charms added to the forceful horns in the passageleading to the recapitulation. Again there is a stress on romantic harmonies,especially the Neapolitan sixth and the beautiful ending which, with itsalternation of a minor and D minor chords, provides both a plagal effect and a Tierce de Picardie.